Sean Miller’s 12 seasons as Arizona’s coach featured some incredible highs and disappointing lows.
The coach won 302 games with the Wildcats, was named the conference coach of the year three times, led the Cats to three Pac-12 Tournament titles and won the conference five times.
Under his guidance Arizona reached the Elite 8 three times — suffering soul-crushing defeats in each matchup — and pulled in star-studded recruiting classes on a seemingly regular basis.
He also watched as the program was embroiled in an FBI investigation and ran afoul of NCAA rules, culminating with a Notice of Allegations received last fall and a self-imposed postseason ban, enacted this past season.
None of Miller’s last three teams had the look of a contender, with them combining to go 55-35, with a 29-27 mark in the Pac-12.
Add it all up and school president Dr. Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke announced it was time for a change.
Fair enough, and from the looks of it Tommy Lloyd appears to be the opposite of Miller in many different aspects.
There are many people who feel like Miller should still be the coach, that the allegations against him are untrue, the roster he had built could contend and much better days were ahead.
At the same time, there is a segment of the fanbase who believes a change was long overdue, that the drama surrounding the program had become too much to handle and a fresh start was needed.
Time will tell which side, if either, was right, but what we do know is Miller is no longer the coach — Tommy Lloyd is — and the former’s legacy will not be written until the latter has time to get to work.
For now, Miller’s tenure is filled mostly with what-ifs and could-have beens.
What if Jamelle Horne’s three went in against UConn? What if Quenton Ross’ three didn’t find net? What if Brandon Ashley or Ray Smith didn’t get hurt?
Oh, what could have been if Nick Johnson had not been called for that offensive foul, Lauri Markkanen got the ball late against Xavier or the Deandre Ayton-led team didn’t have to deal with off-the-court drama and just been able to focus on basketball.
What if Covid-19 had not put a halt to the 2019-20 season? What could have been if Arizona hadn’t self-imposed a postseason ban this past year? While neither team would have been expected to make a deep run, they don’t call it “March Madness” for nothing.
But when it comes to Miller, many will point to the lack of Final Four appearances as well as, in his last two tournaments, upsets to lower seeds, as evidence that he wasn’t all that great in Arizona.
It’s not that simple, however.
When Miller took over in 2009 the program was not exactly in great shape. Lute Olson’s health troubles led to consecutive seasons with interim head coaches, and while both saw NCAA Tournament berths — the second an improbable Sweet 16 run — Arizona was in many ways on the precipice of falling off.
Had Arizona chosen the wrong coach — like, for example, Tim Floyd — a few seasons of mediocrity could have seen the end of Arizona as one of the West’s premier programs. As tough as it may be to acknowledge, the Wildcats could have easily cratered.
Now, even a bad Arizona team is probably going to be decent, but there was no guarantee the program would get back to a level where it was competing for conference and national championships.
Miller got them to that point, though, and though he didn’t come through on the ultimate goal there’s no reason to ignore what he did accomplish.
Which, in some ways, is likely part of the reason he got fired. Miller showed Arizona could be elite, but was unable to get to the top of the mountain.
Now it’s Lloyd’s turn.
Unlike Miller in 2009, the new coach won’t be afforded much of a honeymoon period. The Cats were expected to be quite good next season, though that was before the coaching change and a possible exodus of some of the team’s key players.
Even still, should Arizona struggle next season many will look at it as a result of firing Miller adding one final “what if?” to the former coach’s resume.
However, if Lloyd can keep the team together and/or add a good amount of talent to the roster and guide the team to a good record and the NCAA Tournament, it may be a sign that a change was necessary and if not that, at least not a mistake.
Should Lloyd build off of that and get the Cats into the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend, well, that would be terrific and be a sign that Miller had done all he could with Arizona and it was, in fact, time to move on.
Of course, if Lloyd and the Wildcats struggle, not just this next season but in the seasons that follow, the program could find itself in a bad spot.
Not only irrelevant, but longing for the way things used to be, even if the way things used to be weren’t really that great.